Book Review: The 19th Wife

I spent the last few days listening to The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff. It has an interesting framework, going back and forth between the fictionalized autobiography of Ann Eliza Young, one of the plural wives of the late Mormon prophet Brigham Young and author of the 1876 memoir Wife No. 19, and a murder mystery in a modern polygamist community, where the 19th wife of a polygamous man has been jailed for his murder.

Jordan, gay son of the accused wife no. 19, was thrown out of the community as a young adolescent for holding hands with his step-sister. (Boys in dysfunctional polygamist communities frequently get kicked out for petty reasons in order to keep the ratio of adult men to adult women low, enabling any remaining adult men to have more wives. You can learn more about this downside of dysfunctional Mormon fundamentalist polygamy in the ‘Lost Boys’ episodes of Mormon Stories.) His mother woke him up in the middle of the night, drove with him out of the community, and dropped him alongside a highway. He survives on hustling and carpentry and remains estranged from her for years, until she’s accused of his father’s murder. While trying to get his mother exonerated, he accidentally rescues another Lost Boy and falls in love with a young man who was raised in the mainstream LDS church. I didn’t come to this book expecting a gay romance, but once I knew it was there, I desperately wished it was longer.

Unfortunately, Jordan’s story gets shorter and shorter shrift as the book goes on. The 19th-century narrative takes up more and more of the book as it progresses. It starts to feel like a historical info dump, and it meandered at least as much as the original memoir upon which it was based. I was hoping Ebershoff would use the narrative tools of fiction to illuminate the underlying theology that produced Mormon polygamy. But we get almost no discussion of religious belief, which is weird for a novel whose plot hangs on those beliefs. And sometimes the doctrine that does get mentioned is historically inaccurate. For example, Eberhoff’s fictionalized story has early polygamists marrying some of their plural wives in the temple “for time” rather than “eternity.” This makes no sense. Temple marriage is always “for eternity,” meaning that the people sealed in marriage are believed to remain married after death. (“For time” means the marriage ends at death, i.e. “death do us part.”)

The whole theological purpose of plural marriage was to ensure the married partners’ eternal exaltation and to create patriarchal families that would exist forever, as explain in LDS scripture in Doctrine & Covenants 132. But the narrative of The 19th Wife represents “for time” plural marriages as common practice during the early white settlement of Salt Lake City. This error made it difficult for me to trust any of the doctrine or history presented in the story.

My recommendation? Read the modern story and skim through the historical parts. And if you’re still trying to understand why Mormons ever practiced polygamy, read Doctrine & Covenants 132, Rough Stone Rolling, In Sacred Loneliness; then listen to the Year of Polygamy podcast.


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